CNN's ‘Pope’ Series Could Have Been So Much Better

The show comes across as combative and belligerent

First appearance of Pope John Paul II in 1978
First appearance of Pope John Paul II in 1978 (photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Power! Secrets! Change! SHOCK!!! To listen to CNN tell you about the papacy, you'd think that the Catholic Church was always on the edge of cataclysm.

According to the writers of CNN's new six-part series Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History, the institution founded by Christ to point the way to heaven is weighed down by power hungry popes and bishops, weakened by internal disputes, and confused about just who is in charge. The writers reveal their perspective in the show's tagline: “Go inside the Vatican to reveal how popes have used their power to shape the course of world history.”

I've been watching Pope for the last two weeks (and have previewed two more episodes); and I am disappointed that what might have been an insightful Lenten series has been populated by experts who are not Catholic, who display an animosity toward traditional teachings or who simply misunderstand the Church.

A case in point is the non-issue raised by Professor Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Butler, one of the experts who offered commentary about the papacy, has notably called God a “white racist.” She is clearly not Catholic – as evidenced by her query regarding an issue which would have been clearly defined in the minds of Catholic theologians. According to Butler, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the subsequent election of Pope Francis raised an interesting question: “If there are two popes,” she wondered, “how do you know who to listen to?” (In case you're wondering, Pope Francis is in charge. Pope Benedict has acknowledged the differences in style between him and Pope Francis, but has respected the sovereignty of his successor.)

Granted, there are strong Catholic voices among the contributors to the series – which is why I held out hope that it might convey a positive image of the Catholic faith. Among them is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington. And Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who has an M.A. from Franciscan University at Steubenville, represented Catholic teaching effectively. The problem, as I saw it, was that either the Catholics who had a solid grasp of Church history were not given sufficient time to speak, or their responses ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Bill Donohue, the feisty president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was critical of CNN's selection of Liam Neeson, a self-described former Catholic, to host the show. According to Donohue, Neeson was asked in an interview what he would like to ask Pope Francis. He answered, 'When will Mary Magdalene be canonized, and when can we have women priests?'

“Fortunately,” Bill Donohue responded, “I can help the 'amateur scholar' out. The answer to the first question is: Mary Magdalene is regarded by the Catholic Church as a first-century saint; her feast day is July 22. The answer to the second question is: Never.”

In summary, Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History comes across as combative and belligerent, when the series might instead have studied both the good and the bad, accentuating the many contributions of past popes and their strong defense of Catholic doctrine.

But the biggest problem with CNN's series, in my estimation, is that there's just not enough of God. The commentators speak of the papacy as a political institution, a football for which different factions competed. This may have been true—the Church is, after all, composed of sinners; but always there is the Holy Spirit, guiding and protecting the Church just as Christ promised.